Hidden Holiness

Michael Plekon
Foreword by Rowan Williams

Finalist, 2009 Book of the Year Award in Religion, ForeWord Magazine

In Hidden Holiness, Michael Plekon challenges us to examine the concept of holiness. He argues that both Orthodox and Catholic churches understand saints to be individuals whose lives and deeds are unusual, extraordinary, or miraculous. Such a requirement for sainthood undermines, in his view, one of the basic messages of Christianity: that all people are called to holiness.

Instead of focusing on the ecclesiastical process of recognizing saints, Plekon explores a more ordinary and less noticeable “hidden” holiness, one founded on the calling of all to be prophets and priests and witnesses to the Gospel. As Rowan Williams has insisted, people of faith need to find God’s work in their culture and daily lives. With that in mind, Plekon identifies a fascinatingly diverse group of faithful who exemplify an everyday sanctity, as well as the tools they have used to enact their faith. A generous and expansive treatment of the holy life, accessibly written for all readers, Plekon’s book is sure to inspire us to recognize and celebrate the holiness hidden in the ordinary lives of those around us.

Michael Plekon is a professor in the department of sociology/anthropology and the Program in Religion and Culture at Baruch College, City University of New York, and is an ordained priest in the Orthodox church in America. He is author of Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (2002) and editor of The Church of the Holy Spirit by Nicholas Afanasiev (2007), both published by University of Notre Dame Press.

“Father Michael Plekon pushes a boundary here. Our usual understanding of those who are saints involves something heroic, something extraordinary—and it allows us to put too comfortable a distance between ourselves and those we consider saints. We are able to look away from the Lord’s demand that we are to be holy, as God is. By focusing on the manifest holiness of a number of people who did not demonstrate such extraordinary heroism, people whose lives nevertheless give witness to the transforming power of the gospel, he challenges all of us to become what our baptism calls us to be.” — John Garvey, author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions

“Recent years have seen a great resurgence of interest in the saints—not as legendary heroes or heavenly patrons, but as spiritual companions and models of faithfulness. Michael Plekon writes with compassion and insight about a number of those models. But his great contribution is to highlight a new style of holiness, hidden in the ordinary duties and challenges of everyday life. A profound, ecumenically rich reflection on the meaning of sainthood in our time.” — Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints

“In Hidden Holiness, Michael Plekon writes about the ways holiness and grace are everywhere, not just located inside church buildings. He writes of people living out their faith. I loved this book and recommend it to anyone who wants a relationship with divinity that is creative and ongoing, a religion deeply embodied and unconfined by doctrine and rules.” — Darcey Steinke, author of Easter Everywhere: A Memoir and Jesus Saves


“Without doubt it is usual for preachers to recall that the Christian life is one of everyday engagement—holiness is not reserved to a happy few ‘extra-terrestrials’ but each of us is called to sanctity by baptism. This is why it is not at all bad to sometimes examine the lives of Christians who are not and never will be canonized as saints but who offer us a reflection of God’s image . . . simply because they were human beings . . . Contrary to what we might think, these also reveal to us a side of God’s infinite love that we could really put to use. This is what . . . Plekon has set out to uncover, following the path he took earlier in Living Icons . . . [the individuals he presents] are not perfect and their very public failings are likely obstacles to their official recognition by the church. Nevertheless they turned to God who gave them the strength to fully live their lives on earth, caring for their brothers and sisters, in imitation of Christ. It is precisely in this that their witness raises profound question for us all, especially for all Christians.” — Irènikon

“This very readable book amounts to a verbal symphony on the theme of holiness: a holiness hidden and non-spectacular, contemporary and accessible, yet still beguiling and mysterious. . . . Hidden Holiness is an important contribution to the current literature on Christian holiness. In particular, it merits the attention of anyone interested in the growth of the calendar of saints in various branches of the church.” — The Living Church

“The present work is a remarkable, if unconventional, study of the meaning of personal holiness in the contemporary world. The author, Fr. Michael Plekon . . . examines the ‘shape of holiness’ beyond conventional categories, in an attempt to discern its presence in the everyday lives of people of various walks of life, life-styles and convictions.” — One in Christ

“Plekon’s book is a 200-page look at who else should be regarded as an important saint today . . . even if their lives are somewhat controversial—and even if their lives are all but hidden in the pages of history. . . . Plekon doesn’t explore the canonization process in detail. He recommends other good books on that topic. But he does argue that the basic connection between sainthood and popularity may be eliminating some important saintly figures from our spiritual radar.” — readthespirit.com

“The process of beatification and canonization has consistently gone in favor of clergy and religious while excluding, for the most part, married men and women, parents, teachers, other professionals, and social activists. Plekon salutes the humanity and spirituality of Etty Hillesum, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Simone Weil, and others like them who do not fit the pattern of celebrity sainthood with their flaws, singularity, and ‘holy audacity.’ ” — spiritualityandpractice.com

“While Fr. Michael Plekon uses the lives of individuals who exemplify various qualities of contemporary holiness—hidden holiness—it is important to realize that this is not a work of or about hagiography. His real purpose is to call us to realize that holiness—being a saint—is not just for people on holy cards but also for you and me; that in holiness ‘is joy and peace.’”— Communities of New Skete

“What is ‘holiness,’ really? Hidden Holiness is a scholarly examination of what is holy in modern society, and calls for people to make their own judgments on what really matters in today’s world. Could what is truly holy be hidden from the public eye, unbeknownst to many? Seeking to promote discussion of this topic, author Michael Plekon presents an intriguing examination of modern day holiness, making Hidden Holiness a highly valued read.” — Midwest Book Review

“The author, both a college professor and a priest in the Orthodox Church in America, suggests here that it’s too limiting to think of saints as just those halo-bearing people whose deeds no one can hope to match. Rather, he suggests we look to lesser-known people who offer us models for particular types of behavior that is both admirable and, in the end, holy. He introduces us to such people in a way that suggest we might do similar things in our own lives.” — Faith Matters Weblog by Bill Tammeus, May 10, 2009

“. . . In seven meaty chapters, including an ecumenical cast of characters, Plekon searches for the strategies and resources that bring people close to God, for, as he rightly understands, holiness is a fundamental characteristic of God, and everyone else is holy to the degree that he or she is drawn closer to God. . . . This book is especially recommended to those who are interested in solid work on spirituality but who have little knowledge of the Christian East in general or Russian thought in particular.” — Commonweal

“At the core of this book is a strong argument that holiness can be revealed by the faithful living of ordinary people in the world. In so doing, it offers a powerful and practical model of Christian life, making this a thought-provoking work on hagiography, ethics, and spirituality.” — Religious Studies Review

“Michael Plekon suggests in Hidden Holiness that our cult of celebrity has elevated some figures to sainthood, by process or public acclaim, while most holiness is lived out as ‘hidden holiness.’. . . Recommended for personal or group study, Hidden Holiness would be particularly effective for a retreat setting and for anyone interested in contemplative reading.” — Congregational Libraries Today

“[Plekon] makes a vibrant appeal for a return to reality, to actual lived out holiness not imprisoned in superhuman ideals . . . this is a great treasure . . . it offers a most substantial contribution to hagiography, for those living in our time.” — Contacts

“Hidden Holiness is particularly strong in showing that saints wrestle with faith, struggle with personal demons, and go about the business of their daily lives much as everyone else does. This book is a real joy to read, a challenging feast of the soul that not only nourishes but also inspires.” — Cistercian Studies Quarterly

“If asked to name a person who has exemplified holiness, do you think of one of the classical saints, or do you think of a friend or family member? Michael Plekon suggests in Hidden Holiness that our cult of celebrity has elevated some figures to sainthood, by process or public acclaim, while most holiness is lived out as ‘hidden holiness.’ His book will be best appreciated by those who have saints and icons as part of their faith heritage. But there is plenty here for any reader.” — Church & Synagogue Library Association